“Chuck vs. the American Hero”
March 29th, 2010
Sometimes, when critics receive episodes in advance and when previews run rampant online, those of us without those episodes and who choose not to watch those previews nonetheless hear the basic content of an episode. And when it comes to this week’s episode of Chuck, it was absolutely impossible to ignore the subject matter of this week’s episode.
What’s interesting is that these responses were both positive and negative: news that this episode would directly speak to Chuck and Sarah’s relationship tends to divide the Chuck viewership between those who are excited about it because it’s the reason they watch the show and those who are excited about it because it means they might finally get around to resolving this issue. While some live or die based on this story, most viewers tend to view it as a part of the show that’s fine in small doses, and fine in theory, but occasionally overpowers the rest of the show’s narrative.
And so episodes like “Chuck vs. the American Hero” are either the highlight of the season or a necessary evil in order for the show to keep on track heading into the rest of the year; in this case, after a bit of a rough start, the episode manages to prove engaging enough and twisty enough that any of my concerns with their relationship were (mostly) pushed aside for the time being.
“Chuck vs. Operation Awesome”
January 18th, 2010
Chuck, like any person with a secret identity or someone who lives a double life, is constantly forced to balance his friends and family from his normal life with his work for the CIA. And early in the show’s third season, the show has made this point especially clear with the integration of his brother-in-law Devon into the show’s espionage, which really highlighted how much more effective Chuck is because of the fact that he has a personal connection with particular missions. When he’s saving himself he overthinks and gets flustered, but when he’s saving someone he loves he is focused and capable of accessing the intersect and saving the day.
“Chuck vs. Operation Awesome” is positioned as the second part of last week’s investigation of these types of questions, and while there’s some leaps taken by the show’s writing staff in terms of getting the action rolling, the episode confirms how important those themes are going to be for the remainder of the season. Showing a tight narrative drive inspired, one presumes, by the initial short episode order (which was extended from 13 to 19 after these episodes were already finished and the season had been plotted out), the show intelligently positions a new character as a mediation on the same themes that matter most to its regular characters, and uses an exciting episode to introduce him into the fold.
“Chuck vs. the Angel of Death”
January 11th, 2010
The unique two-night, three episode premiere has been a ratings success: the two hours last night scored the show’s best non-3D ratings since Season One, and while tonight will see a drop against intense competition from House, The Bachelor and How I Met Your Mother the show is still off to a good start.
However, creatively, the schedule is both blessing and curse: it allows the show to present a diverse set of circumstances rather than trying to start the show on a single episode which fails to capture the show’s wide-ranging quality, but it also means that certain thematic elements feel as if they’re being beaten into our skulls. “Chuck vs. the Angel of Death” is a spotlight episode for Ryan McPartlin and Sarah Lancaster, but it also reminds us that Sarah and Chuck’s “Will they, won’t they” relationship isn’t going away.
In the short term, the latter point may seem problematic, but the constant onstant reminders of Chuck and Sarah’s relationship would be more annoying spread out over several weeks, and right now the show isn’t being overrun by them: instead, the show is using it as a subtle complication of their working relationship, which takes a fun and adventurous story finally living up to Captain Awesome’s partial knowledge of Chuck’s vocation and having some fun with Casey (and Adam Baldwin’s history of revolution-inspired nicknames) in the process.
And so long as “fun” outweighs Chuck and Sarah’s relationship at the end of the day, the show is in great shape going forward.
“Chuck vs. the Best Friend”
February 23rd, 2009
Utilizing every one of its regular cast members other than Big Mike, “Chuck vs. the Best Friend” is the kind of episode that demonstrates the show’s confidence within its second season. It connects all of Chuck’s various world in numerous different ways, allowing for the Buy More storyline to intersect with Awesome and Ellie while Chuck’s spy storyline intersects with Morgan and Anna’s on and off relationship that is currently in the decidedly off position.
And although the episode doesn’t deal with the show’s ongoing mythology, or introduce a new dynamic into Chuck and Sarah’s relationship, this is an example of a show that knows its identity and knows it well. To be fair the episode, it actually did some of the show’s best Chuck and Morgan material to date, and at a certain point you start to realize that even their mostly perfunctory bromance can be milked for some considerable drama in scenarios like this one.
If a show is going to have a “Flash of the Week,” it needs to do one of two things: make it stand out from an action/suspense point of view or connect it to the show’s characters. What Chuck has decided to do this season is show up every other show by doing both at the same time. It’s made for some darn great television.
“Chuck vs. The Sensei”
December 1st, 2008
Any show coming out of a major story arc is going to have a bit of a tough time of their next episode. This isn’t to say that the episode is going to be bad, but rather that it’s inevitable: whether Lost after their premieres or Battlestar Galactica after its inevitable midseason pit stops, there’s going to be a point when the rising action has reached its climax and it’s too soon for the next story to really pick up.
This was, for Chuck, as good a time as any to return to the past of one John Casey, stern-faced Buy More employee in one life and…stern-faced NSA agent in the other. While I like seeing more of Casey, the episode spends a lot of time plainly stating that John Casey only has one speed: mad. There is no inner calm in John Casey, and while we get one moment of unquestioned humanity in the episode there is, for the most part, not going to be something approaching the emotional side that we get so often from Sarah.
But Adam Baldwin knows how to play mad, and the show knows how to balance an episode like this; while it doesn’t help it rise above the show’s standard this season, the choice to parallel Casey’s past with Ellie’s upcoming wedding and the pressures of in-laws offered a good chance for the storyline to slowly move forward even as Casey faces off against a familiar face from his past (and ours, as far as the TV spy game goes).
“Chuck vs. The Ex”
November 10th, 2008
If I was going to make one complaint about Chuck’s 99% sublime second season, it would be that we haven’t spent enough time on Chuck himself – sure, he had his crisis in the premiere, but the show has dealt mainly with his relationship with Sarah as opposed to really letting Zachary Levi cut loose in this role. While he is perhaps the most unsung hero of the show, Levi continually gives Chuck a certain humanity that makes this show work, quite simply – without him, I’m not sure it would be the show it has been so far this season.
As far as episodes go overall, this one was a bit slower and more open-ended than our last few, the multi-episode arc element meaning that we get only part of a broader story (plus, this week’s Buy More storyline was one of the weaker ones in a good season for the store). But the return of Jill, Chuck’s ex-girlfriend from Stamford who broke his heart by running off to Bryce Larking so soon after their breakup, is the kind of thing that lets Levi demonstrate that he is the heart of this show, an element that can often be forgotten when we’re running at the kind of breakneck speed this season has been maintaining.
And that’s what turns what could have felt like a slow, exposition-driven introduction to a new character into something so successful: sure, it’s a bit slower plot wise than anything we’ve seen lately, but the episode was so chock full of double entendres, stylish one-liners and hilarious iPhone photos that any loss of momentum is entirely negated. This is a show that can stop, detour, or hit any multitude of speed bumps, and something will be there to pick up the slack, what little of it there is.